Saturday, July 28, 2012

A Fan's Notes

    Though the events in this book bear similarity to those of that long malaise, my life...I have drawn freely from the imagination and adhered only loosely to the pattern of my past life.  To this extent, and for this reason, I ask to be judged a writer of fantasy.
    Subtitled "A Fictional Memoir," Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes rings truer than any "creative non-fiction" that I have ever read and, while generally shelved in the fiction section of most bookstores, is every bit as revealing and revelatory as Dave Eggers' Heartbreaking Work or James Frey's controversial Million Little Pieces. Published in 1968, Fan's Notes was literary memoir before it was hip and set the bar for Frey and Eggers along with another too-little-known classic of this genre, Frank Conroy's Stop Time.
    A humorous and heart-wrenching account of alcoholism, sexual frustration, and shock therapy; Fan's Notes paints a perfect picture of the dark underbelly of the 60s, a confession and conversation on self-absorption, emptiness and isolation. Reminiscent of the best work by Vonnegut, Kesey, and Wolfe; Frederick Exley's Fan's Notes is a most brilliant example of the tragicomic. 

Saturday, July 7, 2012


What Should Kester Read?
  • A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley
  • Stoner by John Williams
What else is Kester reading?
  • The Awakening of Hope by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
  • The Daily Bible: NIV Version (daily devotional)
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (New and Noteworthy book club)
  • The Way of Perfection by St. Teresa of Avila

So Long, See You Tomorrow

    This month's selections shared the common trait of being almost completely new to me. A few of them I had seen on shelves, but none were stories that I had any insight into nor authors that I was at all familiar with. Each of them has been a more than pleasant surprise, particularly Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes (which I have yet to finish, but may join the ranks of my top 25 favorite novels of all time) and William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow. A sparse, but lyrical portrait of small communities and shared secrets and best friends and betrayals; Maxwell's tale is incisive and concise, what my retired detective and sheriff grandfather means when he says "short and sweet."
    In less than 150 pages, the narrator looks back almost 50 years to a friend he has neither seen nor spoken to in all that time and to a murder and trial that sent them drifting apart. So Long is a slow burn; part mystery, part history; reminiscent of Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone and Philipp Meyer's American Rust. Maxwell could give lessons in "show, don't tell" and "less is more." His novel is course study in storytelling, with style, setting, tone, and characters all deftly handled and intimately drawn.

The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death

    There's this thing that happens every time that I eat a donut. My mind conjures up this memory from my childhood about donuts that tasted like rubber, but in a good way. I find that much of the appeal (or lack thereof) of a donut is how well it plays to this description, the source of which I had long forgotten, but the memory of which remains strong.
    While reading Daniel Pinkwater's Snarkout Boys I quickly got that deja vu feeling that just as quickly morphed into memory. While I hadn't remembered the title or the author, this story was a familiar one, one that I had read years before. Certain scenarios would begin and I would know where they were headed, sometimes only sentences before we arrived there together. The scene with the speeches in the park and the guy who keeps shouting about meat. The scene where Rat invites Walter and Winston over for family dinner. Or the scene in which Walter and Winston visit the Hasty Tasty Diner and each grab a donut that tastes like rubber and oh I can't believe it THIS IS THAT BOOK!
    What a joy it was to rediscover this novel from my childhood. A story of lonely misfits making their way through high school, slowly and maybe not so surely. This was the theme I sought out in fiction almost exclusively from the 5th through 9th grade. And while Snarkout Boys' reading level is more along 5th than 9th grade lines, it's a fun little adventure that I was glad to revisit. My son, Harrison, took one look at the title and said, "that just sounds silly," and it is. Very silly. And strange. And a little bit sad. It hints at the alienation that more modern YA fiction hits on so heavily and is more real in its imaginings for doing so. Pinkwater's fiction may be too fantastic to paint an accurate picture of what I was doing in middle school, but it is a more than fair assessment of how I was feeling. And reading it again was a nice reminder.

The Porcine Canticles

    "You can write about pigs," suggested John, the wise and unlettered neighbor of David Lee. A former seminary candidate, semi-professional baseball player, and hog farmer; Lee is the author of eight books of poetry and Utah's first Poet Laureate. The advice is well heeded, and Lee creates a collection of narratives and epic tales about pigs and farming and neighbors and community and the rural Southwest. 
    I like my poetry like I like my bacon (or liked it before I became a vegetarian), lean and seasoned. Lee's is that; seasoned with the direct and uncompromising impact of common talk and local vernacular, Porcine Canticles is a tribute to the hope and promise found in the everyday ordinariness of things.  Fans of Wendell Berry and Flannery O'Connor will find much here to love, as Lee's writing shares that same flavor and feel. The Porcine Canticles is that rare book of poems that "reads like a good novel."